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What It Means to Forgive

Thinking about forgiveness in terms of four basic decisions helps us forgive others the way God forgives us.

by Winston T. Smith Forgiveness is incredibly powerful. If it could be bottled, a daily dose would probably save a lot of marriages. But what, exactly, does it mean to forgive? What are the “active ingredients”? How do we learn to forgive?

Embracing what Jesus has done for us and extending that in thought, word, and deed to others is the essence of forgiveness. In forgiving one another, we draw on the forgiveness that Jesus has given us by making a decision to release another from the penalty of sin. Rather than drawing a curtain and pushing each other away, we push sin and judgment away and draw near to each other. Put as simply as possible, forgiveness is releasing the other from the penalty of sin so the relationship can be restored.

Think about forgiveness in terms of four basic decisions that reflect the way God forgives us:

A decision to release. Forgiveness means letting go of your right to punish another and choosing through the power of God’s love to hold onto the other person rather than his or her offense.

In the process of forgiving, the first barrier you have to remove is within yourself. You have to decide to let go of the offense along with your desire to punish the offender. You have to decide to see your spouse instead of the offense. Often the decision to let go has to be renewed daily, hourly, or even more often. The bigger the offense, the more challenging it can be to let go; but the less you ruminate on the offense and feed your anger, the easier it becomes.

Understanding forgiveness as a decision to let go is important because we often confuse forgiveness with our emotions. When this happens forgiveness ebbs and flows as our emotions ebb and flow. When we don’t feel angry, we think we’ve forgiven, but when anger resurfaces it seems we’re back to square one. Just when we think an issue has been laid to rest for good, it pops up again. While forgiveness affects and can bring relief to our emotions, it’s much more than an emotion. It’s a decision we make based on our worship of God to forgive as he forgives. God’s forgiveness isn’t a declaration of emotion but a declaration that his people are forgiven and pardoned from their sins just as a judge would dismiss a case from a courtroom. In that sense, forgiveness is a decision, a declaration, a once-for-all-time pronouncement.

But what if you can’t stop thinking about it? When you dwell on an incident, it may mean there are lingering questions or anxiety about what’s happened. Look for unresolved issues or unanswered questions. Are there hurts that you never revealed? Is there something missing or wrong in the way your spouse is dealing with his or her sin?

Also explore the possibility that there’s a hidden benefit to dwelling on the incident. Sometimes we prefer to live in a self-protective cocoon of anger rather than risk the trust required to forgive. Holding onto an offense may afford a sense of moral superiority over our spouses and distract us from having to look at our own hearts. If this is the case, focus on God’s love and mercy and ask Him to help you forgive. You may also want to enlist the encouragement and prayers of wise friends or a counselor.

Forgiving isn’t the same as forgetting. It isn’t a divine form of amnesia. God doesn’t ask us to live as people without a history or pretend that sins never happened. In fact, being able to recall how God has delivered us through marital storms, empowering us to confess, forgive, and overcome, can give us hope and an anchor in future storms. Stories of forgiveness and reconciliation can also become part of the way you seek to strengthen and encourage others in their marriages. Remember that it’s one thing to dwell on an incident with thankfulness for how God has worked in your marriage but quite another to dwell on it and find you anger and hurt reawakened.

A decision to sacrifice. God’s forgiveness required the sacrifice of His Son to pay the penalty for sin. Our forgiveness requires sacrifices, too, though of a different sort. Your suffering doesn’t atone for your spouse’s sin, but you’ll have to sacrifice in several ways:

You’ll have to accept the wound that you’ve received from your spouse. Forgiveness doesn’t mean pretending it didn’t happen or running from it. Face the pain of the offense and the discomfort of talking about it, so your spouse can know how you’ve been hurt and have an opportunity to turn from sin and receive mercy and forgiveness. Forgiveness is a sacrifice in the sense that you’re choosing the more difficult path. You’re sacrificing the temporary comfort of ignoring the problem or the temporary pleasure of erecting a wall of bitterness and instead doing the hard and sometimes painful work of moving toward the one who has wounded you.

It also means that you’re letting go of any future payback. You’re sacrificing all of the moments that you’ll want to remind your spouse of how he or she has wronged you, wanting to cause the same kind of pain you’ve been caused, taking comfort in the power of making your spouse earn back your love and affection.

An important way that you sacrifice your claim to justice is by refusing to bring up the matter in a harmful way. That means, for example, no subtle digs and not using it as a trump card in the next argument. This is an extension of your decision to release your spouse from penalty. If you’re successfully putting off negative musings then you’re much less likely to use the incident against your spouse in the future. If you repeatedly bring up the matter for the purpose of hurting your spouse, reaffirm you decision to release him or her from penalty. Reflect to see if you’re regularly reviewing the hurt in your mind and why.

The key phrase in this commitment is “in a harmful way.” Even in the context of a conflict, it may be helpful to understand how a current problem is related to a past problem. Being able to identify a pattern of problems in marriage can lead to a deeper understanding of what’s going on beneath the surface. So, for example, a wife who has recently sinned by losing her temper over several different incidents may need to be encouraged to notice the rising tide in her anger. A loving husband would naturally want to help her think through and understand what’s driving the recent spike in anger, to get beneath events to underlying issues. That doesn’t demonstrate a lack of forgiveness but wisdom and love.

Don’t gossip about the issue. Talking to others about the incident probably means that you’re nursing your memory of the offense. Notice how often you’re thinking about this incident, what your attitudes are about it, and why.

A desire to talk to others may also be a sign that you need to talk more to your spouse about the incident but can’t. If you’re afraid that raising the issue again will hurt your spouse or if he or she has asked you not to bring it up again, remind yourself and your spouse that forgiveness is a process, that you’re committed to forgiving, but that you need help thinking and talking it through if your forgiveness is going to grow.

A decision to trust that God is up to good. As Jesus sacrificed He had to entrust Himself to God. He had to trust that God would really deal with the sin that He, Jesus, was paying for. He trusted that forgiveness would make a difference and that His sacrifice was not in vain. He trusted that God would protect Him, even raise Him from the dead. He trusted that God would renew and restore His people.

You, too, have to trust God when you choose to forgive. You have to trust that God will both heal your hurts and use your sacrifice to restore your relationship. When you forgive you have to trust that you aren’t being a fool, but that God will work through your forgiveness. Your forgiveness doesn’t guarantee a change in your spouse, but it does guarantee that you’ll grow and that you’ll be protected from bitterness. Trust that forgiveness is the path that God provides to draw back the curtains that separate you and your spouse. Trust that forgiveness will renew your marriage.

A decision to grow. No matter how sincere the confession and commitment to change, your spouse may again sin against you. Remember that change is a process. The forgiveness that God gives us based on Jesus’ one-time death on the cross is bestowed on us day by day for the rest of our lives. A purpose of that forgiveness, restoring us to His perfect image, is a process that takes a lifetime.

As God perfects His image in you, forgiveness is something that you’ll become better at. On some days, forgiveness will seem natural and easy. On other days you’ll feel ready to overturn the decision you made the day before. Jesus has begun a wonderful work in you but you aren’t fully mature. Growing in forgiveness will require you to stay focused on Jesus, interacting with Him and learning from him just as you must do in every other area of life.

Adapted from Marriage Matters ©2010 Winston T. Smith. Used by permission of New Growth Press.

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